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'It's not a movie, it's a moment': Crazy Rich Asians takes on Hollywood

'It's not a movie, it's a moment': Crazy Rich Asians takes on Hollywood

‘It’s not a movie, it’s a moment’: Crazy Rich Asians takes on Hollywood Movies ‘It’s not a movie, it’s a moment’: Crazy Rich Asians takes on Hollywood

The film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 best-selling novel is the first all-Asian Hollywood film in 25 years â€" does it signal a new dawn for representation in cinema?

Scenes from a marriage: the world of Crazy Rich Asians.
Scenes from a marriage: the world of Crazy Rich Asians. Composite: Guardian Design

If you didn’t know the backstory of forthcoming film Crazy Rich Asians, you would think it was fiction. Based on Kevin Kwan’s 2013 best-selling novel, the movie takes its inspiration from the writer’s elite upbringing in Singapore: his grandfather helped invent Chinese cure-all Tiger Balm; his cousin is Nancy Kwan, one of Hollywood’s first Asian stars; and as a kid he bred arowanas â€" exotic fish that now sell for up to $300,000 each. The “crazy” wealth is on an extreme scale: cruise ships with multiple pools, climate-controlled closets, and more private planes than cars. It also raises the stakes in Kwan’s story about a romantic relationship between two New York University professors. After dating for two years, Nick Young (Henry Golding) flies Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) to his native Singapore to meet his family. Once there, Rachel learns that Nick is the highly sought-after heir to an enormous fortune, and any prospect of a future with Rachel in it sparks jealousy, sabotage and bullying that involves a bloody gutted fish.

But the film’s exotic flowers and million-dol lar gems have been eclipsed by a far weightier conversation. There is a dearth of major Hollywood roles available to Asian-American actors â€" they are given less than 5% of speaking parts, according to a University of Southern California study â€" meaning director Jon M Chu’s film has already become a beacon for representation. For the film adaptation, he called for aspiring actors to submit audition tapes to get a chance to play a part. “We just really wanted to open up the process, because we know how hard it is to get in the door,” Chu said in his announcement, “especially for Asian characters of different shapes, sizes and talents.”

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Asian actors have struggled to gain visibility in the United States, an issue cemented in 1930 when Hollywood enforced the Hays Code, a list of several dozen restrictions to keep films “wholesome” and “moral”. Interracial marriage was still banned in 30 states, and the Hays Code forbade depictions of relationships between “the white and black races”. As a result, MGM’s 1937 adaptation of The Good Earth, Pearl S Buck’s Pulitzer-winning novel set in Imperial China, starred a white couple. Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American star in Hollywood cinema, auditioned for female lead O-Lan, but because Jewish-American actor Paul Muni had already committed to play the male lead, MGM instead chose German actress Luise Rainer.

Hollywood may have stopped enforcing the Hays Code 50 years ago, but its repercussions are still felt. We have only very recently seen Asian-Americans reinterpret the romantic comedy, with Selfie, The Mindy Project, Master of None and The Big Sick, plus the forthcoming To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and Always Be My Maybe.

Meanwhile, the whitewashing of Hollywoo d cinema is a tradition that refuses to die: the many recent high-profile cases of Asian whitewashing include Cameron Crowe’s Aloha (2015), which cast Emma Stone as the quarter-Chinese, quarter-native Hawaiian Allison Ng; 2016’s Doctor Strange, where Tilda Swinton played a character who hails from the fictional Himalayan kingdom of Kamar-Taj; and 2017’s Ghost in the Shell, with Scarlett Johansson as Major Mira Killian.

After it was announced that two Hollywood films would be made about the rescue of the 12 Thai boys from the Tham Luang cave, tweets joked that all the parts would be played by Johansson. Indeed, Kwan told the Hollywood Reporter that one of the first producers interested in Crazy Rich Asians asked whether some roles, including Constance Wu’s Rachel Chu, could be rewritten as Caucasian.

It’s a mad, mad world: Constance Wu as Rachel Chu. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
It’s a mad, mad world: Constance Wu as Rachel Chu. Photograph: Sanja Bucko/Warner Bros

It is significant, then, that Crazy Rich Asians has been cited as the first major Hollywood picture with an all-Asian principal cast since The Joy Luck Club in 1993. Because of this, its scenes feel like firsts: you get to see how a character like Wu, the Chinese-American Rachel Chu, feels when she meets her boyfriend’s family in Singapore for the first time. The dynamic that Asian-Americans never feel wholly Asian or American, or like they belong with either group, is explored.

“Either because the roles haven’t been written, or the roles are marginal, Asian-American actors never get the chance to become A-list actors,” says Nancy Wang Yuen, Biola University professor and sociology chair. †œThey never get to flex their acting muscle because there is nothing there for them.”

No wonder prospective viewers have pinned their hopes on diversity in Hollywood on a single film. There is a moral imperative among Asian-Americans to see Crazy Rich Asians. “It’s not a movie, it’s a movement,” director Chu said at an advance screening. It feels as if viewers must demonstrate the demand for their stories on screen â€" otherwise, another movie boasting an all-Asian cast might not happen in Hollywood for yet another 25 years.

But because the conversation around diversity and representation has become so charged, does it mean that standards are impossibly high for what is essentially a romantic comedy that indulges in our fascination with extreme wealth?

People even critiqued the trailer’s lack of browner faces, which could possibly signify Singapore’s Malay and Indian populations. On Twitter, they nicknamed the film #CrazyRichEastAsians, #CrazyRichM ongoloids and #CrazyRichEastLight-SkinnedAsians. They protested the trailer’s absence of Singlish, the patois prominently featured in the book. As Nick, British-Malaysian travel host and first-time actor Golding strolls in complete with a British accent (a detail also in the book), and when audiences saw him, they zeroed in on his Eurasian background. The debate is reminiscent of one that occurred during the release of 2005’s award-winning Memoirs of a Geisha â€" the film was criticised for casting Chinese rather than Japanese actors as leads (one of them being Michelle Yeoh, who plays Nick’s mother Eleanor in Crazy Rich Asians).

Keeping mum: Michelle Yeoh in Crazy Rich Asians. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Keeping mum: Mic helle Yeoh in Crazy Rich Asians. Photograph: Sanja Bucko/Warner Bros

As well as seeing a non-white cast in full regalia for once â€" Crazy Rich Asians centres on what is essentially a royal wedding â€" it could also mean further definitive proof of minorities’ oft-ignored but growing digital influence and purchasing power. Because of this pressure, Crazy Rich Asians has inevitably been compared to another recent diverse blockbuster.

“Crazy Rich Asians could continue the movement of diverse hit movies like February’s Black Panther,” said Business Insider recently. However, comparing Crazy Rich Asians to Black Panther does not account for how complex and deeply personal representation can be. Black Panther was cathartic because of how it violently confronted America’s political history, when enslaved Africans were commodified as free labour. Crazy Rich Asians, however, does not wage war; instead it feels revolutionary in the way in which Chu f olds a culture clash into a date-night movie that actually features an Asian couple.

“Looking at grass-roots movements and business models we can do as a community is great,” Yuen says. “But to say: ‘We need our own Black Panther,’ attaching it to someone else’s success, takes away from what Black Panther means to that community.”

Crazy Rich Asians is on track for a $18m-plus US opening, according to projections by its distributor Warner Bros, (the film’s creators rejected what Kwan called a “gigantic payday” from Netflix to ensure it would be seen in cinemas). And hopefully its stars will continue to land big roles â€" Golding will next star in Hong Khaou’s Monsoon, playing a man who returns to Saigon after fleeing during the Vietnam war. It’s important, too, says Yuen, that in the future, representation “doesn’t have to be this phenomenon that we have to wait for”.

“I know [Crazy Rich Asians] won’t represent every Asian Americ an,” Constance Wu tweeted on 31 July. “So for those who don’t feel seen, I hope there is a story you find soon that does represent you. I am rooting for you. We’re not all the same, but we all have a story.”

Crazy Rich Asians is out in the UK on 2 November

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Source: Google News Hollywood

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